"From the strategic point of view, perishables will be where we are able to make the difference."
-- Christian W.E. Haub, president, chief operating officer, A&P
It was a chilly and windy day in Virginia Beach, Va., when A&P opened the doors of its first Farmer Jack store in the East. But the weather proved undaunting to the throngs besieging the store on its opening day earlier this month, nor did it diminish the impression that A&P is edging into an era of format experimentation, propelled by a change in corporate culture. Farmer Jack is the banner A&P uses for most conventional supermarkets in its Michigan Group of stores, but when the banner went up in the East, it signaled the test of a wholly new concept for A&P. As the Farmer Jack name itself might suggest, A&P's concept for the new store is to plump up the perishables presentation as part of an ambition to stake out an area of distinction between itself and surging regional competition. The new store is featured this week in a Page 1 article written by Fresh Foods Editor Louise Kramer.
The new Farmer Jack takes a dash of showmanship from Stew Leonard's in Connecticut, a smidgen of merchandising from Harry's Farmers Market in Georgia, a pinch of a decorative flourish from A&P's own Food Emporium format in New York, then mixes it all up to make an entertaining store format driven by perishables of high quality offered at low prices. In a sentiment that might be applauded by many at the annual Produce Marketing Association convention in San Antonio, A&P President Christian Haub told SN at store opening festivities that "we have to figure out if the stronger emphasis on perishables with low prices is a successful format that can be reproduced."
A&P's new Farmer Jack is characterized by a front-of-store, wide-aisle presentation of some 400 items of produce. That section is backed by niche produce presentations such as organics, Asian specialties and value-added selections. Many of the produce offerings are given ample display room through use of big European-style tables. That merchandising strategy relegates grocery to a far smaller portion of the store than is usual for A&P-operated formats. Other perishables departments in the new store occupy more traditional perimeter locations in the 39,000-square-foot unit. The new Farmer Jack is also unusual for the A&P chain in that heavy emphasis is put on locally grown produce. The gambit to flatter regional sensibilities seemed to be well received by many shoppers.
Conventional A&P stores in the same region are supplied from A&P's distribution center in Baltimore, a supply strategy that's likely to yield perfectly adequate, but homogeneous and fairly uninspired departments. And when it comes right down to it, breaking the mold in creative ways -- such as by finding new supply lines for produce for the new-format venture -- is what makes innovation possible in a big company. As Harry Austin, an A&P group vice president, said, "When you move in a corporate structure, there are certain guidelines you should follow. In this case we were told to go out and do some bizarre things: Make it a real happening, exciting and customer-friendly," It's fair to predict that should such thinking take root at A&P -- a company with 135 years of operating history -- the new Farmer Jack concept will put out shoots elsewhere, and other unprecedented store formats won't be far behind.